Most people have never read a Political Party Manifesto in their life. You might expect a creedal statement, a summary and explanation of a Party’s core beliefs. “We believe in transnational financial capital, maker of wealth and tax avoidance. We believe in one holy, global, market economy, the forgiveness of greed, and the resurrection of one-nation Toryism …” or something like that. Comparisons and choice of Party leaders being odious, and this a profoundly important election for Britain, I decided to read the Manifestos of the two Parties most likely to reach Downing Street. I found these a fascinating collage of aims, pledges, and some principled thinking, a unique, literary form.
The 2019 Manifestos remind me of hopeful Wedding Gift Lists– prudently un-costed by the sender – with a hint of those New Year Resolutions you make as an adolescent, knowing full well, come the second week in January, they will be abandoned. The Conservative Party does offer a second document costing its pledges which you can download, and Labour claims they have done the sums. And, of course both Manifestos are lengthy and comprehensive: 107 pages of Labour’s It’s time for Real Change and 64 pages of the Conservative’s Get Brexit Done. Unleash Britain’s Potential. Notice the two imperative verbs in the latter. This is to highlight strong leadership and that is why there are eight pictures of Mr. Johnson, hair carefully tousled, plus one picture of workers with a banner “We love Boris”. A picture of the bashful, and much bashed, Mr. Corbyn appears but once in the Labour Manifesto. An unfortunate thought does intrude that the real change needed is in the leadership of the Labour Party.
The substantive, domestic contents of each Manifesto have, in the main, been covered by political commentators. But of foreign and international policies beyond the European Union, hardly a word. Both are worth looking at.
The Conservative Party’s presentation“, Britain in the World” is, as might be expected, defence and security heavy. But it does include in the section “Our Values” the commendable pledge “to seek to protect those persecuted for their faith and implement the Truro Review recommendations” (An exemplary review undertaken by the Anglican Bishop of Truro on religious freedom).
Animal welfare policy also puts in an appearance under values with a picture of a veterinary surgeon and the head of a large black dog. Well, we are a nation of dog-lovers. Lest the vote of cat-lovers is forfeit the Party balances the ticket by “advancing [feline] microchipping”. The FCO will be relieved to know Animal Welfare will be promoted overseas - though the Ambassador to South Korea, a country where 300 or so restaurants have dog on the menu, may regret this. Remarkably the Animal Welfare section comes before the one on Climate Change. Yet there is no indication that advanced swimming classes will be provided for either dogs or cats.
The Labour Party in its excellent “A New Internationalism” section of its Manifesto bravely goes for Animal Rights with a charming badger photograph. So much for farmers’ votes. They are commendably strong on human rights, international solidarity and social justice, as well as the role of diplomacy.
By far the most puzzling item in the Labour manifesto’s internationalism section is to be found among its three “pledges” saying what they will do in the first year in power, presumably the most urgent priorities. The first of these is the promise to introduce a War-Powers Act that will require parliamentary approval for military action. Fair enough – though, as in the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, military action may need to be taken very rapidly. The third is an important FCO-friendly £400 million to boost our diplomatic capacity. But the second is as follows: “Conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule”.
There are a number of possible explanations for this odd priority. The first would be the Manifesto drafters have read their Orwell. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”. Another would be that the idealistic student masses who flooded into the Party have run out of statues of bad people to pull down, or university lecturers with the wrong views about colonialism to ban.
Might the National Executive simply attend a course on colonial history in our universities? What more do we need to understand, for example about the impact of torturing Mau-Mau suspects in Kenya or, say, the Balfour Declaration’s contribution “to the dynamics of violence and insecurity” in the Middle East? Do they really suppose all post-colonial ills can be placed at the door of British imperialism?
Party manifestoes are worth reading in full. They tell you a lot about what each Party’s leadership thinks the public wants to hear. And in addition they are an opportunity to scrutinize a political Party’s world-view and deceptions. Very useful for citizens, Manifestos provide a check-list of aspirations and promises which they can later call to account.
The current Labour and Conservative Manifestos give rise to two thoughts: first, the leadership of the Labour Party has completely abandoned the realist understanding of political possibilities of the Blair-Brown years; economic radicalism is brutally punished by capital flight. They have forgotten that redistribution of wealth and stability in society, increasing salaries and building better public services, can only be achieved from a broad base of popular support. Because they haven’t established that base outside Party membership they won’t win the next election. The second thought is that the moderate Conservative Manifesto means there is no real way of knowing if the Tories, if they come back to power on 13 December with a workable majority, will tilt back to a more one-nation stance, or surrender to its new-found extremism. The clear and present danger is that the extremists will win the day.
See also TheArticle.com 26/11/2019
Why are we surprised to discover that our political culture is dysfunctional, British society divided, perhaps dangerously so? Political leaders have bombarded the public with a stream of stark binary choices: a yes or no referendum on leaving the European Union, ‘the people’ versus the ‘elite’, a vigorous can-do Executive versus a “zombie” Parliament, the poor versus the Establishment and the Rich, a suffering North versus a complacent South, young voters anti-BREXIT, old voters pro-BREXIT.
A better answer would be that globalisation plus Coalition and Conservative government policies have increased inequality of opportunity between, and within, regions; a decade of austerity has depressed the incomes of the less well-off. This experience has created a genuine conflict of interests, feelings and power between so-called overbearing cosmopolitan ‘nowheres’, upwardly and geographically mobile, and the ‘somewheres’, those left-behind, stuck locally with low incomes and few prospects, ignored. It is not that simple. But there is something in the distinction.
The perception of social reality as an irresolvable conflict between ‘them and us’ is the great mainstay of extremism. I can vouch for that after eight years of working on preventing religious extremism. The death of Jo Cox MP was tragic evidence that politicians’ irresponsible language in a dysfunctional society has become lethally dangerous. We see a threatening increase in the percentage of Neo-Nazis joining potential jihadists in the Channel mentoring programme of the Government’s Prevent policy.
And yet, there is something else going on. I was struck by John Le Carré’s recent observation that “Nationalism needs an enemy, Patriotism needs a commitment”. Identifying the enemy is the step after ‘them and us’ into hate-speech with the conviction that ‘them’ are evil. Then comes violence.
There are also ideological reasons for our present predicament. BREXIT is a bi-product of the rise of English nationalism. It takes an Irishman like Fintan O’Toole to name, analyse and ridicule the genie inside the BREXIT bottle. Now that the Farage/Johnson nationalist genie has been released, we will soon face significant pressures for an independent Scotland and a much more Irish Northern Ireland, possibly short of a United Ireland, possibly not.
First a confession: I have a soft spot for John Major’s English myth: Anglican ladies riding their bicycles to church, cricket on the village green, warm beer, cosy pubs. No satanic mills here. Nor rust-belts and boarded up shops. But then I also have a soft-spot for Connemara: the rugged coast and cold churches, horizontal rain, Guinness and oysters round a turf fire, good craic, the Arran Isles, Ireland’s own offshore dream of the past. But fantasy pasts are inherently weak as narratives of nationalism. Society changes leaving them behind. Nationalism finds an enemy.
In a General Election the dark arts of ‘setting the agenda’ come clamouring to the fore. Wrapping themselves in the flag of English nationalism, the new Conservative Party tries to hide its roots in what Will Hutton describes as transnational finance capital: a “regulation-light land fit for hedge funds and private equity capitalism” made for “billionaires of whatever nationality”. Yet, for an era of identity politics, neither Tories nor the statist Corbyn coterie are performing well. Corbyn is acutely vulnerable on political judgement, foreign policy, and Security. Johnson on his past performance as Foreign Minister, his personal values, mendacity, and chameleon politics.
Try applying the Le Carré distinction between nationalism and patriotism to the General Election campaigns. For the Conservative/ Brexit axis, the European Union is the enemy: virile English nationalism stifled by ‘massive’, and effete, EU bureaucracy (in reality the EU employs 32,000 ‘bureaucrats’ with responsibilities for 512 million people, the UK employs 430,000 civil servants for a population of 67 million). As new Leave slogan, ‘Get BREXIT Done’ is a doubly mendacious successor to ‘Take Back Control’; BREXIT will not be done for several years and what Johnson most wants ‘done’ is a big election victory for an English Nationalist Party led by Tory extremists. Many expelled, now former, MPs are patriotic in the Le Carré sense, committed enough to the values of ‘one nation’ Toryism to end their careers. They were unfortunate. Johnson is fickle enough to lead a straightforward ‘one nation’ campaign were it in his interests. On the scale of malignant populist nationalism, a future Johnson government might merit a three, Orban’s FIDESZ in Hungary an eight.
Why only a three? Because the new Conservative Party knows it must pretend to embrace one-nation Toryism and reflect some of the values of the majority of the British people. Not the majoritarian BREXIT values surfaced in the 2016 Referendum, but those of the overwhelming majority of British citizens who share the values and experience of the NHS and are committed to it as a precious national institution.
Founded by the 1945 Atlee Government, the NHS with its egalitarian, free-at-the-point-of delivery, cradle-to-the-grave services, its multi-racial and multi-cultural staffing, and its strong popular support, expresses a cohesive national identity, the kind of identity presented to an admiring world by Danny Boyle at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics. Here was a national institution we were proud to show off to the world. The sense of national pride and healthy patriotism was palpable. That is why, in the current financial bidding war for votes, the Labour Party could not allow another Party to outbid them on commitment to NHS funding.
Viewed from the angle of an individualistic competitive society, and the new Toryism that purports to promote this kind of society, Conservative support for the NHS is an anomaly. “A free health service”, Aneurin Bevan wrote, “is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society”. I await John McDonnell quoting that.
In today’s divisive political culture the NHS remains the touchstone of a cohesive Society with strong human values. And somewhere in our lie-saturated and divisive political culture, the political leaders of the two main Parties glimpse the truth of this proposition…. even during this desultory time of binary identity politics. There is still a glimmer of hope.
See also TheArticle.com 21/11/2019
November 9th was the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall began coming down. It was also the anniversary of the beginning of Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Nazi pogroms against Germany’s Jews. Not a bad moment for an audit of progress, or lack of it, in protecting human rights around the world. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) is our best shot at defining the simple demands of human dignity, with Article 18, the right to freedom of religious belief (FoRB), its bellwether, now violated on a global scale.
British foreign policy has been equivocal in its promotion of rights from a high point under Foreign Minister Robin Cook’s much ridiculed “ethical dimension”, to the loss under austerity cuts of dedicated human rights staff, to Britain’s recent refusal to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, released from imprisonment on false blasphemy charges in Pakistan, and Boris Johnson’s cavalier negligence which landed Nazinin Zaghari-Radcliffe with a five year prison sentence in Iran.
In December 2018 Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s successor as Foreign Secretary, asked the newly appointed Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, formerly head of the Church Mission Society, to review the persecution of Christians in key countries around the world, to analyse the FCO’s response to their plight, and to recommend a “cohesive and comprehensive policy” against their persecution. A surprising announcement because freedom of religious belief, let alone Christianity, had not been treated as a priority in the UK’s human rights work.
The Foreign Office’s neglect of religious persecution springs from at least two major causes. Firstly, over the last two decades the FCO, reduced under austerity has been struggling with new priorities: climate change and environment, countering religious extremism, sexual trafficking, rape as a weapon of war, not to mention BREXIT, Putin, and Trump, a crowded in-tray. Secondly and more significantly, Britain, especially its ‘Establishment’ has become a more openly secular country suspecting proselytism behind every missionary bore-hole and clinic and putting jobs, trade and arms sales before public criticism of human rights violations.
Britain’s civil servants follow government directives; diplomats paid lip service to promoting FoRB. A minority did value contact with religious leaders over and above their instrumental value in furthering UK policy objectives, and did do their best to help people of faith who were persecuted. The outcomes of policy directives seem to have depended on the belief, or prejudice, of individual diplomats and civil servants. All embassies and High Commissions were supplied with an FCO toolkit on freedom of religion but, when asked, only 63% of the “low-level” of returns from a questionnaire said they had implemented the toolkit’s provisions. Interviews with religious leaders and communities told the equally depressing story of a small minority of embassies and High Commissions, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, active in providing effective help for persecuted Christians and in advocating FoRB with host governments.
The Bishop of Truro’s Report’s, focussing on the persecution of Christians in the context of the wider FoRB, thus avoiding rebuttal as special pleading, takes us – instructively - back to the years after the Second World War and the origins of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The World Council of Churches’ Commission on International Affairs led by the Lutheran theologian Dr. Frederick Nolde, originally lobbied for the nascent UN to establish a Commission on Religious Liberty. It soon became clear to the Churches that these rights had to be part of a wider declaration of other human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first chair of a Commission whose drafting committee produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). The contribution of the British Council of Churches, the Conference of British Missionary Societies and the Greek Orthodox Lebanese Foreign Minister, Charles Malik, was to add “the right to change belief” to the right to hold beliefs, their public expression and performance. It was another world. The veteran British missiologist, J.H. Oldham, saw the UNDHR with its Article 18 on religious freedom as “a new secular structure for the ‘good society’ that would inherit the fruits of the Christian centuries”. We would not wish to describe a universal declaration that way today.
What then did Bishop Mounstephen come up with? Well, a first rate and comprehensive report published in July 2019 which both details the extent of Christian persecution and places it firmly within a general wider decline in respect for FoRB, a decline affecting all faiths. The Report’s individual country assessments make fascinating if shocking reading.
Most notably the Report advocates an early warning system designed to pre-empt persecution, the mainstreaming of FoRB within existing programmes of democratisation, development and peace-building, together with further training in religious literacy for FCO staff. It also asks for a standard definition of persecution and a better understanding of the particular character of discrimination and persecution of Christians. It identifies the variety of triggers and drivers of Christian persecution. In the Bishop of Truro’s own words at a recent meeting: “If you lift the stone of persecution and look underneath, what is it that you find? You find gang warfare on an industrial scale driven by drug crime; you find authoritarian, totalitarian regimes that are intolerant both of dissent and of minorities; you find aggressive militant nationalism that insists on uniformity; you find religious zealotry and fundamentalism in many different forms that often manifests itself in violence”.
I hope the FCO doesn’t shelve this important work. The situation has been deteriorating with Christians persecuted in 144 countries (up from 125 in 2015 according to the respected Pew Foundation in 2016). Quoting the organisation Open Doors, the Report gives the figure of 245 million Christians in the top 50 offending countries currently experiencing persecution today. Progress in combatting violations of FoRB has been reversed whether in the cultural genocide of the Uighers in China or the decline in the number of Christians surviving in Iraq’s Ninevah Plain - alongside the Yazidis - from 1.5 million before 2003 to about 120,000 today. Between 1990-2017, 45 Catholic priests and a Cardinal were murdered by drugs cartels In Mexico. Such human rights violations are now have an alarming a scale, scope and severity scale and have multiple causes.
This Report on the persecution of Christians is a painful, revealing read, a spur to action and easily available*. In a positive step, government circulated it to the Home Office and DfID. Politicians must be pressed about what they intend to do to implement its findings. A General Election provides unique opportunities. As William Wilberforce said presenting a report on the slave trade to the House of Commons in 1791: ‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know’.
What’s wrong with the Home Office? Almost two years have elapsed since Amelia Gentleman broke the story in The Guardian of Jamaican-born Paulette Wilson: she had come to Britain aged ten, lived here continuously for fifty years working and bringing up her daughter; she had no passport, never returned to the Caribbean, nor left the UK. In 2015 the Home Office informed her that she would have to leave Britain and must not work. In October 2017 Paulette Wilson was taken to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where she was detained for a week awaiting deportation. Naturally she was distraught at being declared an illegal immigrant. Jamaica was a foreign country. Her local MP, Emma Reynolds, and the Refugee and Immigrant Centre in Wolverhampton managed to rescue her from Heathrow just in time. But she was not out of the woods. The threat of deportation still hung over her. This was the beginning of the Windrush Scandal breaking in the Press.
Appalling treatment of British citizens began with David Cameron bulldozing measures through the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government with the aim of reducing the number of immigrants, culminating in the 2014 Immigration Act. Theresa May, Home Secretary since 2010, was determined to create a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. Norman Baker who was Minister in the Home Office at the time described staff responsible for carrying out the policy as “zealots”, ever coming up with more inhumane ideas. The touring vans in 2013 with ‘Go home or be Arrested’ emblazoned on them, immigrants avoiding vital medical assistance for fear of being denounced to the authorities, children in detention, were all products of the Cameron-May policy. As was hundreds of people of Caribbean origin who had worked hard, duly paid their taxes and national insurance, being required to prove that they were legally British, then many being declared illegal by the Home Office. A pernicious set of demands made on Home Office staff took precedence over conscience and whistle-blowing.
The Home Office leadership seemed to glory in meeting government targets for ‘assisted removals’ (a kind of ‘self-deportation’ when, under government pressure, someone leaves without being deported) with 12,800 set as the target for forced removals in 2017-2018. The aim was a 10% increase in “removals” overall. More than eighty of the Windrush generation arrivals fell foul of the anti-immigrant frenzy and were illegally deported. In April 2018 Theresa May refused a formal diplomatic request for an urgent meeting from Commonwealth countries from the Caribbean attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. The Windrush scandal gained international exposure and momentum.
Someone had to take the blame. Inevitably it was the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd who had been in post for nearly two years. She denied her Ministry had removal targets then, when incontrovertible evidence of their existence emerged, claimed in Parliament to have been unaware of them. Even though she was not responsible for creating the policy, her defence was clearly untenable. She resigned on 26 April 2018.
Did the Home Office, as a result of the public outcry at the scandal, then undergo major changes? No. What were the real causes of the Windrush scandal? There were several. But who was really responsible?
I recently went to listen to Amelia Gentleman talk about her new book, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment at the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire. Also on stage, was Colin Grant promoting his own book: Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, a series of moving verbatim reflections on being a British citizen of Caribbean origin. Together they provided a coherent account of how it had taken so long before “the Windrush betrayal” was exposed and ended.
Grant, whose father was Jamaican-born, spoke about the way many victims kept their plight and the cause of their suffering to themselves, as a result becoming even more vulnerable to state bullying. They had grown up with great loyalty and romantic views of Britain. They felt shamed by being singled out, partly a product of defence mechanisms developed over the years - against racism. They did not know to whom to turn or how to complain and seek redress. Gentleman also provided a thorough and balanced account of what went on, providing detailed cases exploring the ways victims were victimised and expected to provide often missing documentary evidence to prove their citizenship. Victims were guilty of illegality until they proved themselves innocent.
But focus on the varied components in the transmission belt of injustice, Cameron-May to Rudd to Home Office staff, risks neglecting its prime mover: the Tory leaders who in order to appease voters hostile to immigration initiated policies which produced debilitating anxiety and, often, physical and mental ill-health for victims destined for detention centres and Heathrow. A reduced Home Office staff, suffering up to 20% cuts, were doing what they were told, obeying orders from above, acting as the promoters of May’s hostile environment. At the same time, Cameron moved away from multi-culturalism as a policy towards existing immigrant communities, tacking further into the wind created by hostile public attitudes to immigrants.
The Home Office is perennially accused of being “not fit for purpose”. Two years have passed now and three things need underlining.
First, if lessons have been learned from the Windrush scandal, apart from a special unit set up to deal with the fall-out from the scandal, to date there are no signs of that. Only the economic consequences of May’s hostile environment seem to make any impact on policy. The same callous indifference to human suffering persists in the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants, with the judiciary the last resort for maintaining human rights standards.
Second, the Home Office still awaits reform, notably in training staff to understand something of the conditions and realities in the specific countries from which asylum seekers and migrants are drawn.
Third, the Home Office needs an institutional ethos free of hostility in which empathy is not a career hazard. And the ethos of institutions comes from the top.
On the broader question of dealing with inflamed public opinion, the root cause of the Windrush scandal was the failure of government and Parliament to show moral leadership. Government needs to challenge the baser instincts of citizens, as well as dealing with the legitimate grievances of citizens disturbed by rapid social change. Representative democracy does not mean robotic obedience to understandable, but often misinformed, popular demands based on fear. Nor the adoption of immigration policies that grievously undermine what we must continue to hope are British – universal - human values.
See TheArticle.com 02/11/2019